Camp chatter: Eastern Conference breakdown

Updated: September 25, 2006, 11:25 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Southeast Division

Carolina Hurricanes: The defending Stanley Cup champions will look markedly different when camp opens, having shed rental players Mark Recchi and Doug Weight. Gone, too, are talented forward Matt Cullen and three-time Cup-winning defenseman Aaron Ward, both wearing Rangers blue this fall.

Cam Ward
AP Photo/Paul ChiassonWill Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward fall into a sophomore slump?

Still, Canes fans have a lot to be optimistic about with playoff MVP Cam Ward ready to assume his first starting role ahead of beleaguered former Tampa Bay netminder John Grahame. Look for young defensemen Anton Babchuk and Andrew Hutchinson to play a bigger role on a blue-line corps that boasts skill and toughness without a front-line star.

Underachieving David Tanabe, cut loose by the Bruins after his arbitration award, returns to the team that drafted him 16th overall in 1999. Up front, Andrew Ladd will have more opportunity to grow his game, as will Chad LaRose, a former junior scoring star who has been pigeonholed into a checking role in Raleigh. The Canes will miss Cory Stillman (shoulder surgery) for the season's first few months, but that shouldn't impair the team's title defense.

Questions: Can playoff MVP Ward shoulder the burden as a sophomore starter in goal? What does emerging superstar Eric Staal do for an encore after his 100-point regular season and playoff-leading 28 points in 25 postseason games?

Tampa Bay Lightning: Things don't get any easier for the 2004 Cup winners this season. GM Jay Feaster still has a world of salary cap problems, having locked the triplets, Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, into expensive long-term deals. Feaster had to unload underappreciated gold medalist Fredrik Modin to Columbus to get what he hopes will be goaltending stability in the form of Marc Denis. Reliable defenseman Darryl Sydor also was jettisoned -- back to Dallas -- to create financial room.

Homegrown star Pavel Kubina is now being paid big bucks in Toronto, and Filip Kuba takes his spot along the blue line. Combustible coach John Tortorella will have to get better production out of Ruslan Fedotenko, Ryan Craig or someone else up front if the Bolts are to get back in the Cup mix. The Bolts should be much better on special teams, but watch for St. Louis to be dealt if the Bolts struggle out of the gate.

Questions: Is Denis the tower of strength the Lightning imagines, or is he burned out from being buried by rubber in Columbus? Can all three of the triplets return to form at the same time?

Atlanta Thrashers: Lofty expectations a year ago took a major hit when super phenom Kari Lehtonen went down 20 minutes into the regular season with a groin injury. Expectations remain high for a team that has yet to make the playoffs and has yet to make a significant dent in the local market.

Lehtonen must prove his durability, although GM Don Waddell helped himself by bringing in reliable Johan Hedberg and former Canadian national team netminder Fred Brathwaite to provide the goaltending depth that cost the Thrashers in 2005-06. Gone is 97-point man Marc Savard, who was gifted offensively but a defensive liability. Responsible two-way center Steve Rucchin fills his role, and Niko Kapanen will be expected to provide some offensive juice on the top two lines after coming over from Dallas for 1999 No. 1 draft pick (and chronic underachiever) Patrik Stefan.

The Thrashers might be tougher to play against with Rucchin, Vitaly Vishnevski and a healthy Bobby Holik, but they are slower than a year ago and only marginally improved on defense, where they ranked 24th in the league. Unless that defense moves into the top half of the league, you can kiss the postseason goodbye.

Questions: Can Lehtonen stay healthy enough to prove he's one of the league's top young goaltenders? Can Ilya Kovalchuk shed his label as a "me-first player" and lead the Thrash to the postseason for the first time?

Florida Panthers: In a matter of days, the Panthers have gone from Team Redemption to Team Disarray with the forced resignation of GM Mike Keenan. With Keenan forced out by owner Alan Cohen and coach Jacques Martin -- who now assumes the GM post, as well -- the question remains, whose team is this?

Todd Bertuzzi, acquired for franchise netminder Roberto Luongo, is Keenan's guy and a key member of what could be an explosive offense. Likewise, Ed Belfour, who will be angling for playing time alongside youngster Alex Auld (also part of the Luongo deal), was brought in by Keenan. Then there's Gary Roberts, who warred with Martin last season, then demanded to be traded to Toronto. Keenan refused to deal Roberts, and now the ageless forward will be expected to help lead a promising crop of youngsters ready to blossom, including Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss, Anthony Stewart and Jay Bouwmeester.

We love captain Olli Jokinen, and the possibilities are there for the Panthers to become the next Cinderella team to emerge from the Southeast Division and take the NHL by storm -- if the sudden shift in management does not prove too great a distraction.

Questions: Can Martin give his talented young team the offensive leash it needs while still being responsible enough defensively to go to the postseason? If it happens, will anyone in South Florida notice?

Washington Capitals: We spent a lot of time beating up on the Capitals before the start of last season, and we're honestly very sorry about that. And it would have been nice had owner Ted Leonsis given GM George McPhee something to work with this season because this Caps team is one of the hardest-working teams in the NHL. But sadly, the immediate future looks as bleak as it did a season ago. There's Alexander Ovechkin, who scored 49 more points than the second-leading scorer on the team, and netminder Olaf Kolzig, who curiously re-signed with the Caps instead of becoming a free agent. And that's pretty much it.

Alexander Semin will join the Caps after essentially being AWOL the past two seasons. But coach Glen Hanlon still has fewer tools to work with than any other coach in the NHL.

Questions: Can the enigmatic Semin make an impact? Is there a drop-off for effervescent Ovechkin in his sophomore year? Will anyone bother to show up at the MCI Center to see the game's brightest young star knowing the team has no hope of making the playoffs?

Northeast Division

Ottawa Senators: Yet another weak-kneed playoff performance has been followed by yet another revamping of the perennial Cup favorites from Ottawa. This year more than most, however, the changes might actually add up to something approaching a winner.

Zdeno Chara
AP PhotoThe Bruins' addition of big defenseman Zdeno Chara gives instant credibility to their blue line.

Gone is big man Zdeno Chara and blossoming scoring star Martin Havlat, but the Senators actually might be stronger with the addition of solid blue-liners Tom Preissing and underrated Joe Corvo from Los Angeles. Martin Gerber should provide a steady veteran presence to balance promising sophomore Ray Emery, giving the Senators the best goaltending depth they've had in years (at least on paper).

True, with the departure of Havlat and Bryan Smolinski, the offensive depth isn't what it was, but that might not matter with Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson, all potential 100-point producers. Watch for the Senators to win the division before once again flaming out in spectacular fashion in the playoffs.

Questions: Will talented center Alexei Kaigorodov be the most dynamic Metallurg Magnitogorsk ex-pat in the NHL this season? Is it time for a breakout season from Patrick Eaves?

Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres were one of last season's feel-good stories in the regular season and in the playoffs. Picked by few to even qualify for the postseason, the Sabres overcame a plethora of injuries to come within one win of a berth in the Stanley Cup finals. They did so playing a wildly entertaining, explosive style featuring a virtually anonymous cast of players. And therein lies the challenge for defending Jack Adams Award winner Lindy Ruff: How does he replicate that chemistry?

Already, Buffalo has been forced by economics to walk away from J.P. Dumont, awarded $2.9 million by an arbitrator. Shot-blocking specialist and dressing room leader Jay McKee signed in St. Louis, and another pivotal part of the Sabres' playoff run, Mike Grier, is now in San Jose.

Buffalo did well to bring in Jaroslav Spacek, fresh from a revelatory run to the Stanley Cup finals with Edmonton, and the Sabres still boast good depth on both sides of the puck. There's also terrific goaltending with Ryan Miller and Martin Biron, although how long effervescent Biron will make nice as Miller's backup remains to be seen.

Questions: Will GM Darcy Regier give in to Biron's demands to be traded? Can Daniel Briere, he of the big, new contract, stay healthy enough to become the top-10 scorer his skills suggest is possible?

Montreal Canadiens: The Canadiens spent most of the first half of last season looking like a team that was going to challenge for a Stanley Cup. A late-season swoon saw them scrambling to make the playoffs. Then, they blew a 2-0 series lead against eventual Cup champion Carolina, all of which leaves the Habs somewhere between pretender and contender at the start of this season.

Some will point to the loss of Saku Koivu midway through the Carolina series as the key, but the bottom line was that no one stepped up to help star Alexei Kovalev in Koivu's absence. Michael Ryder, Chris Higgins and Mike Ribeiro will get ample opportunity to step forward this season, as will free-agent acquisition Sergei Samsonov, although Samsonov was not the offensive force the Oilers imagined when they brought him to Edmonton at the trade deadline.

Defensively, the Habs are young and mobile and have nice goaltending depth with Cristobal Huet and David Aebischer. Having had a chance to learn on the job as an assistant, coach Guy Carbonneau should have the Habs rolling early on.

Questions: Will Koivu return fully from his playoff eye injury? Can Carbonneau push a young, talented squad to the next level in his inaugural season running the show behind the bench?

Boston Bruins: A season ago, the Bruins loaded up on free agents and saw the whole thing blow up in their faces like a cheap vaudeville cigar. Coach Mike Sullivan and GM Mike O'Connell took the fall, and Harry Sinden allegedly has retired, leaving new GM Peter Chiarelli and new coach Dave Lewis with their reputations on the line.

Zdeno Chara brings stability to a Boston blue line that has had a dramatic makeover in the past year. With Brad Stuart, Milan Jurcina, Paul Mara and Jason York to assist Chara, the depth along the blue line is pretty decent, so much so that the Bruins walked away from David Tanabe's $1.275 million arbitration award.

Offensively, Boston should be able to ice three dangerous lines with Marc Savard likely playing with Glen Murray behind the dangerous trio of Patrice Bergeron, Marco Sturm and Brad Boyes. Rookie Phil Kessel also will figure in the mix. Tim Thomas and Hannu Toivonen should give the Bruins reliable goaltending. So why do we still get a kind of nauseated feeling thinking about this team's chances? Maybe it's that hard-to-pin-down intangible of character -- you don't know whether you have it until you have it, and the Bruins have made a history of not having it.

Questions: Can Lewis, the Bruins' second choice as coach -- after Pat Quinn turned them down -- motivate a team that has been difficult to motivate in recent years? Can former U.S. junior wunderkind Kessel make the big club after forgoing more college hockey, and then make an impact?

Toronto Maple Leafs: If, as the tea leaves suggest, this is GM John Ferguson's last stand in Toronto, he is going to go out with guns blazing. After firing Hall of Fame-bound coach Pat Quinn and replacing him with former Carolina coach Paul Maurice, Ferguson attacked the Leafs' perennial weakness, the blue line, adding Pavel Kubina and Hal Gill and locking up Tomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe to long-term deals.

The goaltending jury is still out on Andrew Raycroft, added via a draft-day deal with Boston. But Raycroft is young and just two seasons removed from a rookie of the year effort. If he can bounce back, the Leafs should be back in the playoffs after missing out last season. The offense is going to continue to be a problem unless Alexander Steen, Matt Stajan and Kyle Wellwood all enjoy breakout seasons. But stranger things have happened. Michael Peca is likely more important once (when? if?) the Leafs make the playoffs, but should still provide some dressing room leadership.

Questions: Will the Leafs ever find two front-line wingers to play alongside captain Mats Sundin, or will his epitaph read "Alexei Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov -- that's it?" How do Darcy Tucker and Peca get along -- remembering that Tucker nearly ended Peca's career with a borderline hit in the playoffs a few years back?

Atlantic Division

New Jersey Devils: On the one hand, no team has run into more salary cap troubles than the Devils, a handy piece of irony given that GM Lou Lamoriello helped craft the new CBA. On the other hand, Lamoriello overcame those same cap troubles, plus the unexpected departure of coach Larry Robinson, last season en route to a 101-point season and another division title. The upshot? Never count Lamoriello's teams out.

Alexei Yashin
Getty ImagesWill new Islanders coach Ted Nolan get more production out of Alexei Yashin? Only time will tell.

Martin Brodeur returns as the most consistent netminder in the NHL, even at 34. Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez have proved to be among the most explosive duos in the league, and classy Patrik Elias returns in spite of predictions the free-agent forward would head across the river to Manhattan.

New Jersey doesn't look like a Cup threat anymore, but it's also a team that rarely falls as far as people imagine it might. Assuming Lamoriello can find a way to get Gionta and defensemen David Hale and Paul Martin under contract, the Devils will be in the thick of the playoff chase.

Questions: When, if ever, will we start to see Brodeur's play decline? What will become of enigmatic but talent-laden Alexander Mogilny?

Philadelphia Flyers: The overriding image from the Flyers' season was the shattered look on coach Ken Hitchcock's face after Buffalo had routed his Flyers 7-1 in the sixth and deciding game of the opening round of the playoffs. It was a look that said, "Oh my goodness, we have a lot of work ahead of us." Indeed.

The Flyers are stuck with two defensemen, Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje, who are too slow for the new NHL. They also continue to be plagued by goaltending inconsistency in spite of the presence of two Olympians, Robert Esche and Antero Niittymaki, who happened to be the goalie of the tournament in Torino this past winter. Up front, Philly is counting on youngsters Jeff Carter and Mike Richards to take a bold step forward after mildly disappointing rookie seasons. Kyle Calder will help up front, especially on the power play, where the Flyers inexplicably struggled last year. Hitchcock will miss versatile center Michal Handzus, who went to Chicago in the Calder deal, and puck-moving defenseman Kim Johnsson, who bolted to Minnesota after suffering concussion problems last season.

Questions: How long before "goaltending" and "controversy" end up in the same sentence in training camp reports? What's the over-under on the number of games talented Peter Forsberg plays this season? (We say 45.)

New York Rangers: The biggest question facing New York is whether it's the team that stumbled its way out of the Atlantic Division lead, then bowed out meekly to New Jersey in four straight games in the first round of the playoffs, or the hardworking team that surprised almost every NHL observer for the first three-quarters of the regular season?

Give GM Glen Sather and right-hand man Don Maloney credit for not sitting back after the Rangers qualified for the postseason for the first time since 1997. The offense has been upgraded with the acquisition of Stanley Cup champion Matt Cullen and ageless Brendan Shanahan. Big Adam Hall should give the Rangers a more physical dimension up front. Defensively, New York is still a bit thin, but adding Cullen's teammate, three-time Cup champ Aaron Ward, won't hurt. Both Jaromir Jagr (shoulder) and Henrik Lundqvist (hip) were injured during the playoffs, and their full recovery will be crucial to the Rangers' not just returning to the playoffs but contending.

Questions: Can coach Tom Renney continue to get Jagr to buy in to his hardworking system even though a couple of his Czech countrymen are gone? Does Lundqvist believe in the sophomore jinx?

Pittsburgh Penguins: A year ago, everyone marveled at the retooling the Penguins had done after winning the Sidney Crosby lottery. But all those big names -- Zigmund Palffy, Mark Recchi, John LeClair, Sergei Gonchar and Jocelyn Thibault -- added up to a hill of ashes for the moribund franchise. Gone is the architect of that mess, Craig Patrick, and his successor, Ray Shero, has taken the alternative approach to team building.

Apart from returning Recchi to the fold (apparently Recchi and Crosby have made up after a midseason spat), the Penguins appear content to let their sparkling core of young players lead them where it will. Crosby remains the centerpiece of that future, but one of the big stories of the summer was the cloak-and-dagger departure of Evgeni Malkin from Russia. The Penguins hope to have him in their lineup opening night, and if they do, it might be the best one-two combinations in the NHL since youngsters Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg lit it up in Quebec and Colorado.

Questions: Is Marc-Andre Fleury ready to start proving he was worth a No. 1 pick? (He'd better be.) Can Gonchar use a strong finish to the regular season to help restore his reputation as an elite defenseman after a mostly abysmal 2005-06 campaign?

New York Islanders: Cue the Twilight Zone music. The one good thing about playing for the wackiest team in the NHL is that expectations are going to be low. Very low. In some ways, this is good for Ted Nolan, who is trying to reestablish himself as an NHL coach and shrug off his reputation as a GM killer, even though, well, he already lost one a month into his new job. Nolan will have to establish an "us-against-the-world" mentality on Long Island and hope a lot of hard work pays off the way it did in Buffalo and Manhattan last year.

It would be helpful for Nolan if Alexei Yashin did more than shrug his shoulders while collecting an obscene amount of money. But that's asking a lot from the enigmatic Russian. Nolan also is saddled with a lineup of guys not known for their selflessness. With Brendan Witt and Tom Poti coming over, the defense has some experience, but that's about it.

Questions: Assuming the Islanders get Rick DiPietro under contract, can the goaltender shake off a wildly inconsistent 2005-06 campaign to provide the steady play that will be crucial to the team's success? Will GM Garth Snow take shots in practice to save the team money?

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

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